52 Utility Companies Plus TVA Form EV Charging Coalition

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You might think a company that supplies electricity would be only too anxious to get in on the ground floor of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. After all, if you can buy apples for 10 cents apiece and sell them for a quarter, that’s pretty much the definition of a business case, isn’t it? But until the federal government ponied up $7.5 billion to fund the installation of EV charging stations everywhere in America, most utilities were content to sit on their hands and do nothing.

Now that all that free federal money is sloshing around, though, the utilities have changed their tune. According to the Edison Electric Institute, 51 investor-owned utilities, 1 electric co-op, and the TVA have banded together to form the National Electric Highway Association, whose stated goal is “providing electric vehicle fast charging ports that will allow the public to drive EVs with confidence along major U.S. travel corridors by the end of 2023.” It wasn’t enough for the companies to sell their electricity at a significant markup, but now that Uncle Sugar is paying for the installation costs, why not?

“EEI and our member companies are leading the clean energy transformation, and electric transportation is key to reducing carbon emissions across our economy,” says EEI President Tom Kuhn.

“With the formation of the National Electric Highway Coalition, we are committed to investing in and providing the charging infrastructure necessary to facilitate electric vehicle growth and to helping alleviate any remaining customer range anxiety.

“By merging and expanding the existing efforts underway to build fast charging infrastructure along major travel corridors, we are building a foundational EV charging network that will help to encourage more customers to purchase an electric vehicle. We owe a great deal of gratitude to the electric companies that created so much momentum at the regional level, paving the way for us to expand this effort nationally.”

The plan is light on details, but it does say there should be enough fast chargers available nationwide by the end of 2023 to allow EV drivers to travel anywhere within the country “with confidence.” The parts of the country served by the coalition are shown in dark blue on the map above. Sharp eyed readers will note that significant parts of the country are not included.

Rural Vs Urban

Recently, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview that electric vehicles will benefit rural drivers the most because they drive longer distances and use more gasoline. You may have noticed that gas prices have been trending up lately, as they tend to do over time. Not only is electricity cheaper than gasoline but prices for electricity tend not to be as volatile as gas prices.

“The people who stand to benefit most from owning an EV are often rural residents who have the most distances to drive, who burn the most gas, and underserved urban residents in areas where there are higher gas prices and lower income,” Buttigieg said. “They would gain the most by having that vehicle. These are the very residents who have not always been connected to electric vehicles that are viewed as kind of a luxury item.”

Ford CEO Jim Farley sees things a bit differently. He told Automotive News this week, “We have a lot of rural customers at Ford that a lot of other brands don’t have. We have Super Duty customers who do heavy duty towing — horse trailers, people in the energy business who are towing big time loads over very long distances. It’s hard for me to imagine that all those customers will go electric in the next 10 years.

“They’re actually as interested in the technology as anyone, it’s just their use case is different than how we’ve designed the vehicles so far. It does feel, at least for Ford, the transition’s happening faster than we thought. But again, it’s the first inning of a maybe nine inning game.”

So who’s right? Buttigieg or Farley? Arguably, they both are. There’s no question rural drivers could save money by driving an electric car if there is sufficient charging infrastructure to meet their needs. By the same token, a contractor towing a backhoe through the Rocky Mountains is unlikely to choose a Ford F-150 Lightning for the job. A Rivian employee recently towed a Mustang with his R1T from Michigan to California — a distance of 2700 miles. The truck handled the load just fine, but needed to stop for recharging every 100 miles or so. That’s a total of 27 charging sessions along the way. Maybe Farley knows what he is talking about.

A Welter Of Charging Networks

If the objective is to make people feel comfortable about driving an electric car, the current welter of charging networks isn’t helping. The problem is a lack of inter-operabilty between them. If you are driving a Belchfire 5000, it really doesn’t make any difference which gas station you stop at. They all have the same size nozzle on the end of the hose and they all allow you to swipe your credit card, gas up, and go. Easy-peasy.

But if you are driving your spiffy new EV, not only are there different plugs on the end of all those charging cables (CHAdeMO, CCS, Tesla), many charging networks require drivers to set up an account in advance, download the app, and take care of payment details. Tesla does the best job. Just plug in at a Supercharger station and your electricity is automatically billed to your Tesla account. But not everyone drives a Tesla, and Tesla’s Supercharger network doesn’t cover all roads everywhere.

What America needs as much as more EV chargers is a unified charging strategy that takes the guesswork out of driving electric. The charging companies need to figure out the procedures for using their equipment to make it seamless and painless. Tales on the internet are legion of EV drivers who couldn’t get a charging station to work or who spend hours on the phone with customer service trying to set up an account with a company they don’t have a prearranged business relationship with. And then there is the problem of chargers that are broken and have been out of service for days or weeks or months.

These are the things that nobody is talking about and the things that give potential EV owners the heebie-jeebies. That’s not doing the EV revolution any good, Mr. Transportation Secretary, so maybe instead of just throwing money at the problem and making grand pronouncements, you could actually spend some time analyzing why people are still nervous about driving electric and come up with strategies to take away their fear? That would be great, sir. Thanks.

Image credit: EEI

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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